LAST WEEK, the School District of Philadelphia confirmed what it feared back in November: It is facing an extra $25 million in unbudgeted costs associated with increased enrollment in charter schools. Charters have enrolled 1,600 more students than allowed by their agreements with the district.
As if we needed another example, this situation is a perfect illustration of the lack of a coherent strategy for public education in the state.
Although the School Reform Commission authorizes charter schools, the SRC has no authority to impose enrollment caps on schools, which means that they have no control over the costs associated with charters.
For each student attending a charter, the school district pays about $8,000 out of the money it gets from the state ($22,000 for special-education students). In the past, the state partially reimbursed the districts for that money, but Gov. Corbett eliminated those reimbursements.
Some charter schools have refused to sign agreements with the district to limit the student population and have added students; one, for example, is authorized to have 675, but has nearly double that.
If the district refuses to pay the charters for their students, charters can bill the state, which then takes the money out of the district's budget.
So, let's see if we have this straight: The state falls short on funding the public-school system adequately, then creates a separate school system financed by the district without the district's ability to control the costs of that system (current price tag in Philadelphia: $700 million a year). And then explains that it won't fund public education adequately because it's failing - and it can't manage its budget. It also applauds the exodus from the traditional public schools as "parents voting with their feet because our public-education system is broken."
We're tempted to describe such a plan as evil genius, except we know better. This is just lazy and ignorant, but the end result is the same: two systems, at least one of which is ultimately designed to fail.
And let's not forget who we're really failing: children.
We fully support the concept of charter education. We especially support the ones which provide a better academic alternative to the traditional system - and may provide a template for improving education. But too many don't, and, clearly, no one is adequately managing that system - with 83 charters, students comprise the second biggest district in the state. See how long it takes you to find the performance data for the state's charter schools, and then see how long it takes to figure out which percentage of them are truly succeeding. (And then see if you can find out how many have been involved in indictments).
Worse, a "reform" bill pending in Harrisburg would actually take more control away from districts, allowing universities to authorize charters.
To be sure, the traditional district needs to be accountable, as well. But to many lawmakers charters are that accountability system, and they applaud the idea of "free market" forces. But if they are so intent on killing the traditional system, they should just be honest about it and do it cleanly, instead of the death by a thousand cuts that they've been imposing for the past few years.